RAMADI, Iraq - A videotape shows a dozen white pickup trucks speeding through the desert, escorting a bridal car decorated with colorful ribbons. The bride wears a Western-style white bridal dress and veil. The camera captures her stepping out of the car but does not show a close-up.
The videotape obtained Sunday by Associated Press Television News captures a wedding party that survivors say was later attacked by U.S. planes early Wednesday, killing up to 45 people. The dead included the cameraman, Yasser Shawkat Abdullah, hired to record the festivities, which ended Tuesday night before the planes struck.
TV Image shows the bride arriving for her wedding party in the remote desert area near Mogr el-Deeb, Iraq, Tuesday, May 18, 2004.
Iraqi children celebrate during a wedding ceremony shortly before U.S. helicopters fired on the party, according to survivors of the attack, in the remote desert area near Mogr el-Deeb, Iraq , 600 km west of Baghdad and 20 km from the Syrian border, in this image made Sunday, May 23, 2004 from a Wednesday May 19 video obtained by the Associated Press. The attack killed more than 40 people, including Yasser Shawkat Abdullah, the cameraman who filmed the video. The U.S. military says it is investigating the attack and that evidence so far indicates the target was a safehouse for foreign fighters. (AP Photo/APTN)
The U.S. military says it is investigating the attack, which took place in the village of Mogr el-Deeb about five miles from the Syrian border, but that all evidence so far indicates the target was a safehouse for foreign fighters.
"There was no evidence of a wedding: no decorations, no musical instruments found, no large quantities of food or leftover servings one would expect from a wedding celebration," Brig. Gen. Mark Kimmitt said Saturday. "There may have been some kind of celebration. Bad people have celebrations, too."
But video that APTN shot a day after the attack shows fragments of musical instruments, pots and pans and brightly colored beddings used for celebrations, scattered around the bombed out tent.
An AP reporter and photographer, who interviewed more than a dozen survivors a day after the bombing, were able to identify many of them on the wedding party video - which runs for several hours.
APTN also traveled to Mogr el-Deeb, 250 miles west of Ramadi, the day after the attack to film what the survivors said was the wedding site. A devastated building and remnants of the tent, pots and pans could be seen, along with bits of what appeared to be the remnants of ordnance, one of which bore the marking "ATU-35," similar to those on U.S. bombs.
A water tanker truck can be seen in both the video shot by APTN and the wedding tape obtained from a cousin of the groom.
On Monday, a senior coalition military officer said "we still don't believe there was a wedding going on" and that intelligence showed that only legitimate targets were attacked. The survivors agree that the wedding festivities had broken up for the night when the attack began, but they insist that there were no foreign fighters or other combatants in their group.
The video shows the bride arriving in a white pickup truck and quickly being ushered into a house by a group of women. Outside, men recline on brightly colored silk pillows, relaxing on the carpeted floor of a large goat-hair tent as boys dance to tribal songs.
The singing and dancing seems to go on forever at the all-male tent set up in the garden of the host, Rikad Nayef, for the wedding of his son, Azhad, and the bride Rutbah Sabah. The men later move to the porch when darkness falls, apparently taking advantage of the cool night weather. Children, mainly boys, sit on their fathers' laps; men smoke an Arab water pipe, finger worry beads and chat with one another. It looks like a typical, gender-segregated tribal desert wedding.
As expected, women are out of sight - but according to survivors, they danced to the music of Hussein al-Ali, a popular Baghdad wedding singer hired for the festivities. Al-Ali was buried in Baghdad on Thursday.
Prominently displayed on the videotape was a stocky man with close-cropped hair playing an electric organ. Another tape, filmed a day later in Ramadi and obtained by APTN, showed the musician lying dead in a burial shroud - his face clearly visible and wearing the same tan shirt as he wore when he performed.
As the musicians played, young men milled about, most dressed in traditional white robes. Young men swayed in tribal dances to the monotonous tones of traditional Arabic music. Two children - a boy and a girl - held hands, dancing and smiling. Women are rarely filmed at such occasions, and they appear only in distant glimpses.
Kimmitt said U.S. troops who swept through the area found rifles, machine guns, foreign passports, bedding, syringes and other items that suggested the site was used by foreigners infiltrating from Syria.
The videotape showed no weapons, although they are common among rural Iraqis.
Kimmitt has denied finding evidence that any children died in the raid although a "handful of women" - perhaps four to six - were "caught up in the engagement."
"They may have died from some of the fire that came from the aircraft," he told reporters Friday.
However, an AP reporter obtained names of at least 10 children who relatives said had died. Bodies of five of them were filmed by APTN when the survivors took them to Ramadi for burial Wednesday. Iraqi officials said at least 13 children were killed. Mourners say the bride and groom were killed.
Four days after the attack, the memories of the survivors remain painful - as are their injuries.
Haleema Shihab, 32, one of the three wives of Rikad Nayef, said that as the first bombs fell, she grabbed her seven-month old son, Yousef, and clutching the hands of her five-year-old son, Hamza, started running. Her 15-year-old son, Ali, sprinted alongside her. They managed to run for several yards when she fell - her leg fractured.
"Hamza was yelling, 'mommy,'" Shihab, recalled. "Ali said he was hurt and that he was bleeding. That's the last time I heard him." Then another shell fell and injured Shihab's left arm.
"Hamza fell from my hand and was gone. Only Yousef stayed in my arms. Ali had been hit and was killed. I couldn't go back," she said from her hospital bed in Ramadi. Her arm was in a cast.
She and her stepdaughter, Iqbal - who had caught up with her - hid in a bomb crater. "We were bleeding from 3 a.m. until sunrise," Shihab said.
Soon American soldiers came. One of them kicked her to see if she was alive, she said.
"I pretended I was dead so he wouldn't kill me," said Shihab. She said the soldier was laughing. When Yousef cried, the soldier said: "'No, stop," said Shihab.
Fourteen-year-old Moza, Shihab's stepdaughter, lies on another bed of the hospital room. She was hurt in the leg and cries. Her relatives haven't told her yet that her mother, Sumaya, is dead.
"I fear she's dead," Moza said of her mother. "I'm worried about her."
Moza was sleeping on one side of the porch next to her sisters Siham, Subha and Zohra while her mother slept on the other end. There were many others on the porch, her cousins, stepmothers and other female relatives.
When the first shell fell, Moza and her sisters, Subha, Fatima and Siham ran off together. Moza was holding Subha's hand.
"I don't know where Fatima and my mom were. Siham got hit. She died. I saw Zohra's head gone. I lost consciousness," said Moza, covering her mouth with the end of her headscarf.
Her sister Iqbal, lay in pain on the bed next to her. Her other sister, Subha, was on the upper floor of the hospital, in the same room with two-year-Khoolood. Her small body was bandaged and a tube inserted in her side drained her liver.
Her ankle was bandaged. A red ribbon was tied to her curly hair. Only she and her older brother, Faisal, survived from their immediate family. Her parents and four sisters and brothers were all killed.
In all, 27 members of Rikad Nayef's extended family died - most of them children and women, the family said.
© Copyright 2004 The Associated Press